Archive for February, 2012

Strange Meeting

February 20, 2012

Well, meetings, really, over the past weekend. I couldn’t resist the albeit rather random reference.

On Friday night to hear the SSO. Imagine my surprise to find myself sitting next to a fellow-blogger. Perhaps this happens more often than one knows, a bit like entertaining angels unawares.

Dene Olding reprised his 80th anniversary speech. The >20 and >10 years’ subscription numbers were 200 and 250.

The program was a luxurious one: Stephen Kovacevich playing Beethoven 4 (my favourite Beethoven concerto) and Strauss Alpine Symphony.

I had had a discomforting morning in court and brooding over this interrupted my afternoon nap. Maddeningly I was not in a fit state to really enjoy this program as much as it deserved. I will have to listen to the broadcast on 7 March and hope that, patched together with my memories of the live performance, a fair impression can be retrieved. Even in my damaged state, however, I could feel what I think of as Mr Ashkenazy’s trade-mark warmth of sound which he drew from the orchestra in the Strauss.

The new principal trumpet, David Elton (here from 2009 with the WASO), featured very promisingly. The orchestra still doesn’t appear to have announced a second principal cello and there is no sign of a replacement for the mysteriously and rather unceremoniously departed co-concertmaster, Michael Dauth.

At interval I broke my usual habits and went to the northern foyer with my neighbours for the night. I’m a southern foyer kind of fellow usually. Company was grander than I’m accustomed to, including a judge. I wonder if that was as awkward for him as it was for me?

On Saturday afternoon, D and I went to Thyestes at Carriageworks. This has become a seriously funky venue. The play is very loosely based around the play by Seneca (they say “the younger” but I always think of him as Clifford Grant in the AO production of The Coronation of Poppea, though he cannot have been as old as he looked on stage) and deals with one of those revenge backstories from Greek mythology which includes somebody being served up his sons for dinner. Apparently this sort of thing happened all the time those days.

I say very loosely based because most of the plot line of the play was conveyed by captions between scenes. What we saw on stage was then what the characters (updated to the present in a rather non-specific way) did or talked about before or in between the decisive moments – rather like the shepherd with his sheep in Breughel’s painting of the fall of Icarus. There was a virtuoso performance by Mark Winter as the particularly psychotic Atreus – in this version very much the nastier of the two brothers. I suppose this was good theatre, but it was also rather exhausting. Atreus reminded me rather of a particularly unpleasant client I had a few years ago in one of my rare forays into family law. I don’t know that I need to pay money for that.

On Saturday night D and I went to the new OA production of Marriage of Figaro. This was the one which was postponed a couple of years ago in the face of financial anxieties. At the time I misunderstood the concern. I thought the anxiety related to the expense of the new production, but now I wonder if it was a concern that a too-daring production might put off the punters in a year when the company needed a sure-fire hit.

Judging from the state of the house (some emptyish patches, and that on a Saturday night), Benedict Andrews’ production may have put some off. It’s a modern one, purportedly set in a “gated community” – though there’s not really much in the action to make that plain other than an opening image of the Count watching a series of surveillance video images on a wide-screen TV.

I didn’t find the modernity a problem per se, or at least not necessarily so, but the emphasis on the threat that the count’s power posed meant that Michael Lewis’s count had a perpetual scowl. Shouldn’t the count also sometimes be just a bit silly and vain? His threats don’t really need to be overt. Other touches also seemed to make the point more darkly than the music suggests – such as when Cherubino was manhandled into his military uniform by two burly security guards. The last act, in a set devoid of darkness mystery or the moon, strained credulity even more than usually.

Of course, the lesser arias – which do not advance the plot but on the contrary retard it – were left out. I guess we were lucky that BA found some dramatic use for the overture. The point of the dictation aria (when the Countess dictates a letter to Susanna and she says the final words of each line as she is writing it) was entirely lost in the direction.

There’s a reasonable selection of images, set to Cherubino’s song, here. D doesn’t like women in trouser roles. I thought Domenica Matthews – thighs aside – made quite a convincing boy, though her vocal tone had a peculiar edge to it. Someone else has commented that she is OA’s best boy since Suzanne Johnstone in Hansel und Gretel. Even D makes an honourable exception for SJ as Hans.

Elvira Fatykhova, previously a bit of a one-role wonder as OA’s quasi-permanent Violetta, branched out as the countess. She does not have a big voice although it is expressive and clearly projected – there is more power above the stave which did not get much of a chance in this role. On the ladies’ side it’s really Susanna’s night, and Taryn Fiebig rose to this well. It is worth trying to get there before 6 March to catch Joshua Bloom as the “A” cast Figaro.

Graeme McFarlane was the lawyer, Curzio. He affected a stutter (“his m-m-mother!”…”his f-f-f-father!”), which seems to be a performance tradition (the stuttering lawyer) which has come and gone in various OA productions. I have always wondered and now thanks to the internet have confirmed that this tradition goes back as far as the original production, where Michael Kelly, who played both Basilio and Curzio, took the credit of carrying it, against Mozart’s initial request, into the Act II finale.

Late on Sunday afternoon I went for a swim at Wylie’s Baths at Coogee. This is always a treat and this summer the furry growth on the seaweed which for a while was rather off=putting seems to have gone away. There were some bigger-than-usual fish there which gave me a bit of a shock when I first spotted them.

On my way out I ran into Gw, a colleague from over 20 years ago, on his way in. For about 15 minutes, we caught up on about 20 years of news and gossip – only scratching the surface, really. The pool was about to close and I was worried that I was depriving him of his swim. Not so. Gw has a key and can swim at all hours.

I had thought this system had been brought to an end about a year ago. I’m glad to see it has been restored.

Turandot and other notes

February 15, 2012

Saturday before last with D to Turandot.

I read somewhere that it is the loudest opera in OA’s repertoire, which has OH&S ramifications. Other operas may have louder moments, but Turandot has sustained big orchestral and choral passages. That may be why if the first interval was 30 minutes rather than the customary 20.

My most youthful opera-going was largely dictated by the availability of student rush tickets, so that Puccini was generally off the menu. As a result, Graeme Murphy’s production is the only one I have seen live. So on the one hand I’m not in a position to judge it and on the other I’m aware that it would be easy to take it for granted. I think of it as tried and tested. Colour and movement are the watchwords and this probably matches the work well. I don’t think of it of as a particularly serious dramatic portrait of the characters involved.

I enjoyed it but I escaped being moved as I have been on other occasions. The key for this is the pathos of Liu’s plight. This was missing. Without that how is even Turandot’s implausible-upon-implausible change of heart explicable? But to get to an appreciation of that pathos you need to be seduced into the work’s heady mix of exoticism and romanticism. Everything seemed a bit brisk – a marshalling of massive forces and co-ordination of spectacle. In the end, on the night, that’s the conductor’s responsibility.

I read Andrew Byrne’s review. I know our tastes differ but I wouldn’t have expected his judgment to be so divergent. Byrne’s performance was conducted by Arvo Volmer; ours by Simon Hewett, in his one scheduled performance in the run. Without in any way meaning to be nasty to SH, I suspect that this may account for the difference.

At the first interval C, with D, hailed us. It’s funny how your picture of a person can be set at an early stage of their and your life. C reminded me that we last spoke when we shared a taxi from the airport in 1998 (it took us a while to work out the exact year – she at first thought it was more recent). This means that she and D have been together since at least then. In my memory I had her fixed as the woman who dumped the rather nerdy RR some time in about 1980. I finally realised I was conflating that dumping with the break up of a relationship with the less-nerdy-but-went-to-the-same-high-school-as-RR JJ at about that time and her subsequent marriage (ending in divorce) with RR’s (in between JJ and RR for nerdiness but by definition nerdier than RR because younger-) brother a little bit later. All ancient history.

C posed the question arising from the plot to that point: why do men go for such unsuitable women? I offered the counter-observation that many women also go for totally unsuitable men, overlooking much nicer men who would treat them far better. It’s an old story. Maybe it’s just a matter of a kind of market power in relationships: attractive alpha males (and likewise beautiful women) can treat their partner badly because they will easily find another. It’s not true that all do, but when you come to generalisations it is hard to escape the tendency that people do things because they can. That’s a truism I suppose: we also do things because we can’t help it.

Walking to the car afterwards, we waited at some pedestrian lights with the Prince of Persia, riding home on his bicycle. It’s not often that we get to talk with royalty. He was charming and gracious.

In other notes, the Saturday before, courtesy of a friend and former student, Dk, I went again to Magic Flute. I sat a little further back. It was the same as before. Dk loved it and especially the costumes and design. I kept my reservations to myself. It would have been ungrateful for me as a guest to have behaved otherwise.

A recent commenter took me to task for calling the Sydney Symphony “the SSO.” She was right – it dropped “orchestra” from its moniker a while ago. I explained this was part of a little personal joke, in distinction to “the other (which is the other depending on context and company) SSO,” the gay free paper “Sydney Star Observer.” Double fail because now the Sydney Star Observer is “Sydney” no more. Judging from its content, it now publishes in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. This means we get Melbourne and Brisbane advertorials, a Sydney classified section and (probably) some common and some different other display advertising. Local news coverage has decreased. The paper is the worse for it. My guess is that this is a defensive change in the context of the beleaguered plight of the print media.

On Saturday last I went to hear the SS[O]’s subscription series opener: Ashkenazy conducting Strauss Metamorphosen and Beethoven 9. I go to this series with 3 others from Dulwich Hill. One is my former year 9 English teacher, Lx. Another, Rb, was in school a few years behind me. The third (originally a friend of Lx and now also of Rb) I have known for almost as long. In a way I owe our continuing acquaintance to the SSO because in my twenties Lx and I caught up regularly at its Monday night series.

This year I am in a new seat as after almost ten years I finally tired of two people who sat just behind me and incessantly rustled the pages of their programs throughout the performance. I asked for a change of seat for this season and was given one, not quite within the parameters of my request.

My new neighbours’ behaviour is impeccable but now I seem to be in an acoustic dead spot. That shows (cf Victor’s cautionary tale from last year) that we should be careful what we ask for.

Before the concert, Dene Olding gave a little speech in honour of the orchestra’s 80th anniversary. He mentioned that about 400 people present had been subscribing for 20 years or more and 600 for 10 years or more. It wasn’t clear whether he included the 400 in the 600 – literally that is the conclusion I would draw from what he said but I suspect he meant otherwise. My new neighbour had already asked me if I was subscribing now, and in the light of that I mentioned to her that I was one of the 400. She said I didn’t seem old enough. If that is so it is not because I look youthful but because I started young. It is only recently that I have not been the youngest (in my opinion) person in my row. We could only spot one apparently/potentially younger person when we looked along my new row.

The Strauss, which I think of as being in the same autumnal/late mode as the introduction to Capriccio, is the piece which I will keep as my particular memory of this concert and especially the Enigma-made-plain emergence of the funeral march theme from Beethoven 3 in the final bars. Beethoven 9 had pulled in the crowd, which gave it an enthusiastic reception. It is true that this tends to happen whenever a choir participates, and I did hear a comment about the presence of relatives from someone nearby. I thought the choir, which sang from memory, particularly good, as was Michael Nagy, the imported baritone. In the tenor-Turkish variation (my favourite bit) things looked for a moment as though they might break down. The tenor (young, local), preoccupied with his big moment, got about one-and-a-half beats ahead of everybody else. He recovered. In our post-concert discussion we of the Dulwich Hill mob thought he looked a bit sheepish after he sat down and was a bit subdued when he joined in again at the end. Lx forgivingly commented that he wasn’t sure if he’d ever seen a performance (as opposed to heard a recording) where the tenor didn’t get unstuck in some way in this passage. That’s the joy of live performance.

And what’s the point of not being moved to joy by Beethoven 9?

On Sunday, D and I went to The Temperamentals, the (these days) annual Mardi-Gras-season gay-themed play at Newtown’s New Theatre. The play deals with a[n][[wanker!]] historical subject – the late-40s early-50s history of the Mattachine Society, an early gay-rights organisation founded in California at that time. It is salutary to remember a time when gay men were likely to be married from necessity, withheld their names and true identities from each other and only felt safe to organize (once they got so far) under Communist-party conditions of secrecy and anonymity. The majority of the cast did a good job which was at the upper range of New Theatre acting standards but at the end I felt that a documentary-style play was neither the best way to be reminded of these things or, for that matter, particularly satisfactory as drama.

A memorial

February 10, 2012

At the West St overpass, zero-tolerance prevails.

Away from the roadway:

[1], [2], [3], [4].

Afterword: reports of inquest here and here.